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Crossing the Desert: Siyāḥa and Safar as Key Concepts in Early Sufi Literature and Life

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AbstractThis article aims to introduce some inquiries concerning travel as a customary mode of ascetic life among early Sufis in the period between the third/ninth and sixth/twelfth centuries. Two prominent concepts are involved in this discussion: siyāḥa and safar. While safar was a general term that refers to a wide spectrum of traditions and customs included in the medieval Islamic culture of travel, the term siyāḥa indicated the custom of roving in solitude without provisions undertaken by some early ascetics and Sufis. The use of both terms over the course of the period under discussion was subjected to different shifts and developments in Sufi spheres. Critical censure against the early custom of siyāḥa was made essentially out of fear of ignoring the communal religious duties of Islam. Although siyāḥa seems to have been adopted by early ascetics, it was gradually replaced by Sufi authors and theoreticians with the term safar instead. After the fifth/eleventh century, the process of the “stabilization” of Sufi activities in particular spaces contributed to change the early Sufi principle in which spiritual progress was combined with, or even conditioned upon, spatial and physical mobility. However, individual cases in which the early ideal of siyāḥa was preserved should not be neglected.

Affiliations: 1: University of HaifaIsrael


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